Lars Vogt

Piano works by Beethoven and Schumann.
Sheldonian Theatre, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3AZ, Sat 10 February 2018

February 12, 2018
Marshmallow and Champagne Overflowing

The February weather gods seem not to have heard that Schumann's 'Spring' Symphony was on the Oxford Philharmonic's programme, given the bitter, driving rain that swept Oxford all day. This was the sort of programme that's the bread-and-butter of the Orchestra – indeed, of most symphony orchestras: 19th century German music. It last played Schumann's Symphony No. 1 ("Spring") only on 28th May 2016, yet here it was again. That day it ran in combination with Ivo Pogorelich playing Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2, an occasion that lives on in the memory owing to the interesting tempos set by the soloist (and I enjoyed his impassive, almost martial demeanour before, during and after the piece).

Lars Vogt, the concert's conductor and soloist for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 could hardly be expected to challenge Ivo Pogorelich in the flamboyance stakes – if, that is, impassivity can properly be said to constitute flamboyance. Mr Vogt became well-known following his second prize at the 1990 Leeds International Piano Competition, and these days he combines a solo career with his position as music director of the Northern Sinfonia at Gateshead. He began with the overture to Beethoven's Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, the composer's only foray into ballet music. It's not as common as it once was to begin a concert with an overture or brief appetiser, and I'm never sure how worthwhile the exercise is. Here, the appetite was tantalised by the dramatic seven opening chords with timpani prominent, but by the end in five minutes or so, it remained unsatisfied in the knowledge that the succeeding 16 ballet numbers remained unheard.

Mr Vogt now took on the double shift of conductor and soloist for the concerto that signalled the composer's progression to the 'heroic' style that came to dominate the 19th century piano concerto. Standing between piano and stool, in his first guise he was a demonstrative, slightly jerky figure, often reaching far to left and right into the first and second violins as if wishing almost to drag by hand the notes from the fiddles. The long tutti concluded, the conductor abruptly sat down for the soloist's quiet opening theme, a new one. To my ear this sounded slightly flurried, as if he'd not quite had sufficient time to prepare himself - as, in a sense, he had not.When he restated the theme, the scales, described in Nick Breckenridge's notes as "thunderous", came over as something less tumultuous than that.

There was a delicious moment just after the cadenza where Tristan Fry swept his drumsticks lightly across his timpani horizontally from right to left, producing a liquid sound just as though the surface had been made of marshmallow. The piano produced in the opening theme of the ultra-slow Largo a delightful tremolando effect (though it was a great pity that noise both within and without the hall intruded upon the music) but then in the Rondo Mr Vogt produced some Scarlatti-like leaps in the piano part and we zipped forward to the exuberance of the closing notes, the notes spilling over one another like champagne overflowing.

In his Symphony No. 1, Schumann set himself the daunting task of reconciling Romantic fervour with Beethovenian symphonic structure. Unlike many first efforts that cling to accepted formulae, Schumann presents a novel third movement with two independent trios, plus a coda built upon fragments of the first. Mr Vogt called up quite a noble fanfare to start with from his now 47-strong orchestra, and as the movement moved forward he made sure that wind parts and contrapuntal lines sounded loud and clear.

The second movement, originally titled "Evening," was a mellow reverie, not without devotional undertones, and Mr Vogt took it without pausing into the scherzo, producing at first plenty of gruff energy. It has two contrasting trio sections instead of a single one, and the conductor gave the first of them a somewhat mystical character. Not another trumpet call, but the equivalent of a fanfare from the strings introduces the finale which the composer entitled "Spring's Farewell." Mr Vogt made of this a jolly leave-taking, dancing almost all the way. There was a charming moment where the flute of Tony Robb – whose sartorially elegant form, standing in the gardens of Trinity College, adorns the 2018 brochure - sang out its birdsong, as of a nesting pink chaffinch or a song thrush, high above the horns. I noticed that, as the applause rang out, the conductor acknowledged the solo flute before any other player.

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